Do Alcoholic Students Score Better on Tests if They Stay Drunk?

By Dirk Hanson 04/26/11

How does alcohol affect memory? New research suggests that students perform much better on tests when their "memory states" match. What does that mean? If you studied for an exam while you were sober, you'd better not get blasted before test-time. But if you studied while drinking, downing a few brews before your exam may actually enhance your performance.

Matching up your memories
Photo via peakhealthadvocate

How does alcohol affect memory? A much-publicized rape trial in Manhattan, in which the accuser cannot remember certain parts of the evening in question due to heavy drinking, has dramatically underscored this complex question. "When alcohol floods the hippocampus—a brain region that records our lives as they unfold—neurons stop 'talking' to each other and capturing memories,” says a recent report in the New York Times. But the effect is selective, and not necessarily what we think of as a blackout. One of the scientists involved in untangling the complexities of “state-dependent memory” is Dr. Jon Simons, a renowned neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge Memory Laboratory in Britain. The Fix asked Dr. Simons if state-dependent memory is the reason why alcoholics and other addicts often pledge abstinence at the peak of an unpleasant bender, only to "forget" the next day why quitting seemed so urgent? “Certainly, the situation you describe would appear to fit with a state-dependent memory account in simple terms,” Dr. Simons responded. “Events or decisions made in one physiological state are likely to be poorly remembered in a different physiological state.” You can’t remember, because the insight and the motivation to quit came to you while you were high, and back here on earth, the memory states don’t match up.

Prior research has answered this question quite definitively, as Dr. Simons delights in demonstrating with this scenario: Suppose Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt slip you their phone number at a nightclub when you are very drunk, and you can’t remember the number when you wake up—just as Doug and the rest of the crew on The Hangover can’t quite recall why there is a tiger in the bathroom. “The key question is this,” says Dr. Simons. “Will you be more likely to remember the number, and save your chances of a date with Angelina (or Brad), if you drink a whole lot more alcohol?"

Surprisingly, the answer is yes. People perform much better on memory tasks when their "memory states" match. So if you study drunk for a test, you'll fare much better if you take the test while drunk, otherwise you're likely sunk. Similarly (and more sensibly), if you study for a test sober, you'd better not get blasted before test time, or your scores will similarly suffer. As it turns out, this "state-dependent" effect doesn't only involve alcohol. Scientists noticed the same pattern among deep-sea divers, who could not recall things on land that they observed when they were 30 feet underwater. 

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]